June 17, 1915 - New York,
New York! - Part VI
---- 9:00 AM, New York, Office of Vice-Admiral Stennis
"Admiral? Admiral Fiske is on the line."
"Very well," Stennis replied, a small frown creasing his face
as he reached for the phone.
"Yes? Brad? Good morning to you, too. I did read that report you
left me yesterday, the, er, Pratt Report.' By the way, I've known
Jonathan and his brothers for years. That and those Red Cross List'
stories in the London papers do shed a lot of light on this business,
though I'm not sure just what to make of it all. Any objection to me sharing
it with Alton?"
"Good. Oh, that's NOT why you called? What then? What? You did WHAT
last night?! Brad, you sonofabitch ...!"
Out in the foyer, the senior yeoman, the one closest to the door, winced,
as he could make out clearly the admiral's vocabulary choice.
"Hell, admiral, I AM calmed down, you know damn well ...."
The yeoman on the far side of the foyer looked up in alarm, as the vice-admiral's
voice threatened to rattle the frosted glass panel out of the door. The
senior yeoman looked down the corridor and caught the eye of Stennis'
aide, who was deep in conversation with three other JOs.
"Who? Well, why didn't you say that first?! Yeah, yeah. Okay, Brad,
you've got my attention already. Now, just why DID you call?"
The admiral's aide drifted into the foyer area, and the senior yeoman
began a low-voiced exchange with him.
"Alright, Brad, thank you," Stennis said in a more genial tone,
"but you're still a sonofabitch." Stennis smiled at whatever
the other replied.
"Meyers?" Stennis called out to his yeoman, as he hung up the
phone. Is LT Jenkins out there?"
"Sir?" Jenkins said, as he entered.
"Take these to Admiral Alton. I'll call him, so he'll be expecting
you. For your information, I'll be asking him to come see me around noon,
and to get his ships ready to put to sea this afternoon."
"Aye, aye, sir."
---- 10:00 AM, Washington, DC, Cabinet Offices
"... so you're saying that The Hague is really there to protect
"Yes, Mr. Secretary. The ships of ALL neutrals, might be more precise,
perhaps, but not here. It guarantees neutral ships protection from seizure
or other molestation by belligerents. It regulates the behavior of warring
nations. If one side violates The Hague, it could lead to neutrals coming
in on the other side against them. It's not worth it. Both sides need
neutrals' goods anyway and the last thing they'd want is for neutrals
to come in on their enemy's side."
"You said not here.' Please explain."
"Yes, sir. In this kind of case, The Duties and Responsibilities
of Neutral Powers,' we -- the neutral power -- are required to keep one
side's merchants safe from the warships of the other. In effect, we justify
the belligerents' non-interference locally and earn our own ships' free
passage elsewhere, distant from our shores, by acting as their surrogate
protector within our own waters."
"Hmm, our own waters,' you say. The three mile limit?"
"Literally, yes." The briefer was obviously uncomfortable with
that narrow an interpretation.
"Hmm. Wouldn't Roosevelt would know all that?"
"Yes, sir. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, sir."
"So, it was just posturing to the mob after all. And after that
Pedecaris affair ...."
"Excuse me. What about mischief? You know, one side pretends to
be another and commits some atrocity, that sort of thing."
"I suppose it's possible, sir. But the deliberate, pre-meditated
murder of innocents? Just to try to create an incident for an enemy? That's
far beyond any ruse of war. That would be seen as an act far more heinous
than the deed itself, which could begin due to confusion or mistake. Any
nation that engaged in such a conspiracy would remain hostage to every
single person even remotely involved, and for the rest of their lives,
at that. That's just too much risk, unless the country was willing to
murder their people who planned it and did it, and then quickly execute
the murderers, then eliminate the executioners, and so on."
"More on that, please."
"Yes, sir." He took a deep breath. "Any country caught
at that sort of thing would be branded an outlaw by all nations. Their
allies would repudiate them, and might even seek a separate peace. No
neutral would ever trust them, not just for years but for generations,
and they just might lose all access to commerce." The briefer's eyes
glazed at the thought. Every past and future odd event, natural disaster,
or strange mishap would be attributed to the outlaw nation, he realized.
"Suppose one navy did alter one or two of their ships to look like
another's," he continued. "First of all, it's not that easy
a thing to do, sir, not at all, not to do it convincingly enough to have
any chance at all of success. Everyone involved in the design work, the
machining, the manufacture, and installation would have mortal risk knowledge.
Then there's the crew or crews that did the deeds. Even things prefabricated
such that they could be used to alter appearance later while at sea would
create similar risks. Anyone who developed the plans, or reviewed them,
or saw them, or refueled the ships, or even just saw the vessels, well,
they would all have mortal risk knowledge. All it would take would be
one of them to have second thoughts, a guilty conscience, or simply say
one wrong thing -- even years later -- and any such conspiracy to commit
such an atrocity would unravel faster than a circus tightrope. Even imitating
a single enemy light cruiser would require a crew of 200, with thousands
and thousands more of whom only one would need to slip, or answer a question
wrong, years into the future. Memoirs, diaries, suicide notes ....
"No, sir. No short term gain would be worth such a long term national
liability, not to any nation, no matter how perfidious their conspiratorial
---- 10:30 AM, Washington, DC, conference room in the offices of the USN
"... and last night," Colonel Anton continued, "a party
of four, including Mr. Ballin and their commodore, were picked up by limousine.
They spent the evening at the Fifth Avenue home of Mr. Thomas Fortune
Ryan. They returned to the pier ...."
So, they did not spend the night there?"
"No, sir," replied the marine, patiently.
"So, none of the other officers left to go anywhere else?"
"No, sir," Anton said, neutrally, restraining a savage response.
"I am puzzled by their actions," said one braided officer.
"Or, rather, by their lack of any actions. They have done nothing
but attend church, funerals mostly, shop, and play tourist, and all with
heavy chaperones' - why haven't they DONE anything?"
The marine decided to consider that a rhetorical question. Most of the
others so far had been little better, anyway.
"Could they have been slipping off using small boats on the harbor
"No, sir," answered Anton. This question had been asked before,
about an hour ago. It'd been nearly an insult then; this time he had to
grit his teeth. He knew the senior officers were worried and anxious and
frustrated, but the many and increasingly inane questions were still beginning
to get under his skin. It was bad enough to be forced to guard a pier,
for crying out loud. If he (or his men) had ever had to draw a sidearm
and use it, the questions here might go on forever. Prolonged peace did
this to the military, he knew. War, however, was worse, and he knew that,
A brief knock at the door of the conference room was followed by the
entrance of a commander bearing a note.
Admiral Benson read it, eyebrows raised. He read it a second time, put
the note down before him, and looked about the room.
"Admiral Stennis," he began, "reports that the two British
merchantmen scheduled for departures this morning have announced postponement
of their sailing dates. The French freighter scheduled for the afternoon
has done the same. The Canadian merchant due to leave this afternoon has
also postponed her sailing. All sailings for tomorrow have been pulled
from all the boards."
"Sir?" Anton opportunistically inserted into the shocked silence,
casting a glance at the clock.
"Yes, colonel," said Benson. "Commander, would please
see that Colonel Anton makes the 11:00 at Union Station?"
---- 11:00 AM, Washington, DC, Cabinet Offices
"Yes, sir?" The briefer was puzzled to have been re-summoned,
but kept his voice even and deferential.
"I remain concerned. That German cruiser in New York. The Germans
managed to get the Brits to fire on their liner and kill some innocents
with our Navy as witnesses. What's to stop them from sailing, getting
out to sea, sinking their own liner, and claiming the Brits did it? Could
that be their game?"
The briefer opened his mouth, then closed it again. After a moment he
"Sir, you mean could they sink their own liner, rescue who they
want, create some damage on their own warship, and blame the British?"
He hadn't thought about that one, and that bothered him.
At an affirmative nod, he continued.
"Well, we'd investigate it most thoroughly, of course. If Strassburg
pretended to be a ship of the Royal Navy, we could check it out in a day
or so. Inside a week, anyway. We're a neutral power and retain diplomats
in both countries. Britain would move quickly to prove they hadn't done
it. They have lots of ships, but we'd be able to work it out, I'm confident.
We also have agents on the ground who could be used to confirm locations
of implicated warships."
"Even in Germany?"
"Yes, sir. If the Brits tried a similar stunt, the Germans would
be most eager to prove innocence, if innocent they were. That'd be easier,
actually, since they have only a dozen or two light cruisers to check.
It's just too hard to pull off. Most likely such an attempt would turn
out to reveal that the pretended ship could be proven to have been in
drydock all along, or something. For example, their light cruiser Stettin
somehow suffered a collision and we know she's not going anywhere anytime
soon. Conspiracies on that order are just impossible to sustain. We and
all the other neutrals would investigate most thoroughly."
"Hmm, suffered a collision,' you say?"
"Yes, sir. We're not sure how, and some versions border on the fantastic,
but she certainly ran into something, that we know."
"Very well, thank you."
----11:00 AM, Strassburg, Kommodore von Hoban's stateroom
"Commodore," reported LT Lionel, "we have confirmed it.
The Frenchman is NOT raising steam. Her lines are still doubled, and the
main hatch covers remain off."
Once the Germans had realized that the Brit merchants had not left at
mid-morning, contrary to their previous announcements, they had begun
to suspect this.
"No sign of steam, sir, but we can't judge well from here."
"Hmm, your daily visit to the harbormaster's offices, that's been
about noon, yes?"
"Yes, sir. I've been waiting until just after they've had second
"Gut. This time, check the boards very carefully, as before. However,
get confirmation on the time the last enemy merchant sailed."
"Aye, aye, sir."
----12:45 PM, Washington, DC, White House, Oval Office
George Harvey listened as the briefing continued. The Secretary was informing
the President that the British ambassador had called upon him to announce
that no more British-flagged merchants would leave New York harbor until
the German cruiser had left and was known to be well away. Nor would any
other Entente merchants leave. And that it was His Majesty's government's
expectation that the United States would abide by The Hague 1907 and either
force Strassburg to leave or intern her.
Harvey realized that the British must have completed assembling overwhelming
force just off shore. Harvey had already related privately the events
of last evening and had told the President that the Germans would still
sail, no matter what, liners and all. The expression on the face of the
man behind the desk showed him that he knew well what would occur soon
thereafter. That appeared to be fated to occur. And that he wanted a way
out. And that he hoped Harvey would find him one.
This was far from the first such situation that Harvey had been in. In
fact, Harvey had seen ahead to this, thanks to an opinionated admiral.
The train ride down from New York this morning had allowed ample opportunity
to explore the matter with him. The solution had become obvious just south
"Their last merchant left when?" Harvey asked, before the silence
"Just after 6:00 AM this morning. The 24 hour grace period would
expire tomorrow at the same time."
"Admiral Benson," Harvey ventured, addressing the senior uniformed
officer present, "can that time be sooner, or maybe later? Or must
we chivvy Strassburg away from the pier at precisely 6:00 AM?"
"Well," reflected Admiral Benson, "not sooner. The Hague
is specific on that. The later' part is not well defined."
"Could it be, say, 12 hours later? For a total of 36 hours?"
"I'm no sea lawyer or diplomat, sir, but I don't see any reason
why not. It's pretty much up to us. The Hague guarantees a belligerent
the right to remain in a neutral port for 24 hours, 48 if there's a problem
getting coal, with provision for even longer with good cause shown, if
the Neutral accepts it. Strassburg tried to leave 24 hours after docking,
but we stopped her."
"Could we reset the 24 hour clock?" Harvey continued. "Making
the interval for them to leave within restart the moment the grace period
ends at dawn tomorrow?"
"Yes, sir, to the best of my knowledge," Benson replied, looking
about for confirmation. Others nodded.
The tension in the room eased, but none dared smile.